“Emerging rock star, TJ CRAY, (JAMES MARSHALL), early twenties, has it all, incredible talent, a beautiful girlfriend (PAIGE TURCO), and now, a shot at the big time. He and his band are about to play the gig of their lives – an audition for the A&R man at Boston’s hottest night spot. And then…”
As President of Motion Picture Production for Lionsgate, Mike Paseornek has overseen a multi-million dollar blockbuster slate for decades – from the SAW series to the Hunger Games franchise to the John Wick films. The lauded films he’s “known for” on IMDb, like La La Land or American Psycho, have screeds and screeds of writing devoted to them. But the story of Vibrations, the 1995 “techno music love story” near the very beginning of his résumé, remains largely untold. “You never set out to make what someone would call a bad film or a limited film,” says the man with production credits on everything from Monster’s Ball to Mortdecai, “but they sometimes turn out that way.”
By all accounts, Vibrations is a wild film. It has the best virtues of a certain kind of cult movie – extraordinary, beyond-taste elements welded to a boilerplate morality tale; extremely period trappings that play to nostalgia as much as they provoke warm incredulity in fresher-faced audiences; earnest performances wrestling with a less-so script. It’s camp in the truest sense, of art that reaches beyond its grasp. And, whatever you may think of it, Vibrations is the one and only film that hinges on a thwarted garage band guitarist-cum-homeless-wino who replaces his amputated hands with robot ones, the better to become the toast of the techno rave underground.
Paseornek began his career as a writer, first as a humour columnist for Greenwich Village weekly The Villager then for television and, before too long, movies. All of Paseornek’s writing credits have a certain je ne sais quoi: Stitches; Meatballs III: Summer Job (“The ghost of a dead porn star comes to Earth to help a nerd with his sex life.”); Loose Ends AKA Screwball Academy; Snake Eater; Snake Eater II: The Drug Buster (“Together with a street-wise hustler from the ghetto they’re going after the TRAFFICKERS”); Downhill Willie AKA Ski Hard. He even wrote a TV drama about teen stress that’s still taught in American schools (Has Anybody Seen Phil?). But to date, he’s only directed one film, and Vibrations leapfrogs all of those (and most others) to the very top of the must-watch list.
Released in 1995 – straight from the “electronic underground,” as the posters have it – Vibrations is a rags-to-riches tale of Gen X rave redemption. It charts the rise of Cyberstorm, a techno musician who exclusively performs in a cybernetic bodysuit, and his romance with self-named t-shirt designer/scenester Anamika. Paseornek cast James Marshall (Twin Peaks, A Few Good Men) and Christina Applegate (Married With Children, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead) at the peak of their young careers, gifting them leading roles dealing with meaty themes of alcoholism, disability and workplace misogny, in a ripped-from-the-headlines milieu of cutting edge technology and incipient EDM culture. The official synopsis:
Emerging rock star TJ Cray (JAMES MARSHALL) is en route to his first major concert when a confrontation with a carload of thugs turns violent. His car is crushed and his hands severed. Despondent, he becomes an alcoholic, and bums the streets of New York City. Cold and drunk, TJ breaks into an abandoned warehouse, and passes out. He’s awoken by pounding music, multi-coloured lights and swarms of young faces. He’s in the midst of an all-night dance party. Dazed, he’s rescued by Anamika (CHRISTINA APPLEGATE), a regular, who brings him to the walk-up apartment building she shares with three friends – a sculptor, a computer/electronics wiz, and a techno DJ. Gradually, he develops a romantic relationship with Anamika, overcomes his alcoholism, and with the help of her friends, develops programmable metal hands that allow him to play the keyboards once again. Shielding his identity in a sculptured metallic suit, he re-emerges on the scene as Cyberstorm, becoming a music legend.
The writer-director-producer of this “strange little movie,” is fully cognisant of its current status. “People have called it so-bad-that-it’s-good,” Paseornek reflects today, from his office in sunny Los Angeles, “but we actually set out to make something that was so weird that it would be good. We didn’t think of it as bad. We thought of it as different and strange and bizarre and weird, while we were doing it.” Vibrations was never intended to be a sober consideration of an emerging subculture, more “a fable which would take licence,” Paseornek concludes, “and we thought there is no better place to do that than in the rave world.”
Shot on location in New York City in 1993, the year CERN made the Web source code public domain, the year before Friends debuted, Paseornek’s film was truly riding the zeitgeist. By the time Vibrations was released, though, the ne plus ultra standard for ragtag groups of twentysomething New Yorkers had been irrevocably set, while Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic and The Net had instructed a whole generation on the credible depiction of computer science. On the other hand, Paseornek’s lens had caught the sense of a milieu, the New York rave underground, that had been practically evaporating in front of him. And Vibrations had at least one other, seemingly inexplicable USP, in the shape of a hand-me-down Stan Winston cyborg suit. But what – bearing in mind Daft Punk wouldn’t debut their famous robot personas publicly until 2001 – brought Paseornek to combine these elements? Where does a movie as singular as Vibrations actually come from? “The origin of this film,” confirms Paseornek, “was not typical.”
Vibrations was co-produced by John Dunning (1927-2011) a giant of Canadian film, who shepherded early films by David Cronenberg (Shivers, Rabid) and Ivan Reitman (Meatballs) alongside future cult classics like My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. According to Paseornek, Dunning was a showman. “Not personally – he was a behind the scenes guy – but he liked showman-style projects that had a gimmick to them. He was a good friend.”
It was Dunning who had given Paseornek his start in motion pictures, hiring him, alongside his writing partner Michel Choquette, directly from National Lampoon. The two re-wrote Stitches for Dunning, then developed a sequel to Meatballs before their partnership broke up. Then a chance meeting with Dunning in a New York street led to his flying Paseornek solo to Canada and putting him on the Cinépix payroll. “John and I had a creative affinity for one another,” Paseornek has explained. “Everyone would sit around and come up with ideas. And that’s the way we made movies.”
In 1986, Dunning had made a film for Fox called The Vindicator, originally titled The Frankenstein Factor and a modern-day retelling of the classic horror story. “A very small movie,” says Paseornek, “but there was a very big-time special effects make up person on that movie, named Stan Winston.” Winston was Oscar-nominated for Heartbeeps, renowned for his work with Rob Bottin on The Thing, but had become truly iconic through his collaborations with James Cameron on The Terminator and Aliens. Dunning still had the suit Winston had designed for The Vindicator (“It had been gathering dust in my basement for years,” he later wrote), and ever since that film had failed to recoup its $4 million budget, he’d been keen to recycle it. “The suit probably cost more than the whole movie did,” says Paseornek, “so we were talking about, what could we do with this suit? And techno music was really beginning to get hot in the early ’90s.”
Based now in Los Angeles, sojourns in Canada aside, Paseornek lived in New York for over 30 years. “I think the first rave in New York was probably 1991,” he recalls. “All these little raves were popping up. I would get these notices of a rave in a warehouse and they always had interesting graphics and I thought, ‘This is an interesting world.'” Indeed, though rave culture had been bubbling under in the US for a few years while it exploded in the UK, the first of Frankie Bones’ landmark Storm Raves took place in Brooklyn on May 11th, 1991.
Described by Michaelangelo Matos, author of The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, “Rave was America’s last great outlaw musical subculture, created by kids, for kids, designed to be impenetrable to adults.” And its proliferation across the US, according to Matos, was inextricably linked with the rise of the internet, first with message boards and mailing lists, later with new electronic audio formats like RealAudio and mp3. In May 1992, ageing alt-culture godhead Timothy Leary told ABC News, “What was once psychedelic is now cybernetic.” In the same segment, which went “undercover” in LA’s rave scene, described techno as “a kind of heavy metal disco.” All of which is to say it’s not a huge leap to get from rave to “robot DJ”.
“So John and I got together,” Paseornek recalls, “We were trying to talk about what we could do, you know, that would reflect this generation of people and new music and the suit. And, we thought, ‘Well, in this world, a DJ could programme his hands just like you programme a keyboard. What would the story be about that?’ And we came up with this crazy story because we had a suit and we had a setting we wanted to put it in, which was the rave world, where we thought it would really fit and what would it be like if a guy turned up with no hands in this world and they had to create hands for him, what could he do if he was a musician? Well, he could play techno music and he could be a DJ at raves.”
“And, so, it really did come together that way.” Next, they needed to enhance their Stan suit with those programmeable hands, which came courtesy of a veteran of RoboCop, eager to work on a Winston. Meanwhile, Vibrations co-producer and music supervisor Dan Lieberstein (later of Sex and the City fame) began searching for representative acts (“We really took the music seriously,” says Paseornek), ultimately providing an entrée to all the musicians who would cameo in the film – Utah Saints (whose performance was cut for the US release), Moses on Acid (a popular group otherwise largely undocumented), Fierce Ruling Diva et al. (The score – including Simeon’s infamous techno demonstration and all of TJ’s music, from his garage band to his Cyberstorm sets – was written and performed by Bob Christianson). Perhaps most importantly, though, Paseornek had to flesh out his script with some lived experience.
“Researching the movie,” says the filmmaker, “The thing that struck me was that the whole rave world was like a fable. I mean, people were in these heightened worlds, there was a vibe going on.” Paseornek’s wife, an artist, suggested they should “go and see what these things are,” and they began to attend warehouse raves, stepping together “into this whole other world.” At one party, Paseornek noted a group of people standing between two enormous speakers, just to feel the vibrations through their bodies. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world – these people are in their own world.’ It was just a different universe that was being created, and we tried to reflect that when we did the movie, recreate as much as was possible, which made for a very weird film.”
“Yes, part of it was the ecstasy and all that, but most of it, to me, was that it was like a lifestyle in the rave world. To the point where there would be sometimes an adventure to get to a rave – they would send you to one place and they’ll send you to another place and yet everyone would find these raves.” For the record, Paseornek confirms, “I never liked ecstasy. It wasn’t my thing, but it wasn’t like I was going [there] to do drugs. Nothing against anyone who did, but I am a martini guy. To me, it was one of the downfalls of the rave scene that the drugs kind of took over and it got a really bad reputation. Most of the people involved with raves really had big hearts and just want to feel something different.”
“I even met with Moby,” Paseornek says, “although I’m sure Moby will never remember this. Moby was just starting to do raves around the world and, through a mutual friend, I sat down with him and he told me about the rave world.” Alas, during filming, Moby was on tour and unavailable. “I tried to convince him. I have a feeling if he was around, he would have stopped in and done something.” Indeed, Moby’s music features heavily in a pre-production promotional video made by Cinépix, which also features a specially-shot Cyberstorm performance, with an alternative cast (and, sadly, the only appearance of his unnamed cyborg backing band).
Script complete, they set about casting the film which was still titled, and would be all throughout production, Cyberstorm. Christina Applegate was 22 and best known for portraying Kelly Bundy on the long-running sitcom Married With Children. Paseornek knew that Applegate was getting offered plenty of mainstream Hollywood, coming-of-age projects but was eager to try something different (or, as the New York Post claimed, in July ’93, “looking to shed her TV bimbo image”), so he passed her manager the script. Applegate liked the project too, but stipulated she would only sign on if James Marshall was hired for the lead. In his memoir, Dunning explained, “He wasn’t our first choice, but we agreed. And he did, after all, have the reputation of being a hot up-and-comer as a result of his work on the hit Twin Peaks TV series.”
First Watergate, now Christina Applegate. The blond star from “Married With Children” passed up highly visible comedic roles in “Wayne’s World 2” and “The Coneheads” and opted instead for a more serious role in the low-budget film “Cyberstorm”. Applegate was overheard saying at Ciccio & Tony’s that she’s going to dye her hair black for the part of the woman who takes in a rocker who loses the use of his hands before the “big concert”. Don’t worry, he’s later outfitted with a computerized suit and “programmeable hands.”New York Daily News, Tuesday, July 6, 1993
Happily, though, Paseornek wanted someone “Where you sort of go, ‘Well, there’s kind of something more going on in that guy’s head.'” Marshall had played brooding biker James Hurley on both series of Twin Peaks, which had only recently been a true cultural phenomenon. “I thought it would be good to have someone who wouldn’t come off as corny intrinsically… James is a heavy dude.” Luckily, Marshall liked the script and wanted to do it, and so Paseornek had his star-crossed lovers. Ultimately, though, Marshall would share credit for some of Vibrations’ most memorable moments. “For the more adventurous dancing, there was a dancer, her name was Zu Zu,” Paseornek recalls. “James was in there for a lot of it, but then we enhanced it.”
Paseornek insists that you can see Vibrations in “a whole different way” if you do picture it as a fable, and “not like somebody trying to show life as it really is,” but, even so, there’s a genuine verisimilitude in the production. “If you stepped back in 1991, into the rave world,” Paseornek suggests, “the characters and the environment itself was a lot like that.” Vibrations was filmed in July 1993 (“One of the hottest summers I could ever remember in New York”), over a month of six-day weeks. It was Cinépix’ first production in the city, and, according to Dunning, “We were pumped.” The production recruited rave organisers to decorate the same Brooklyn warehouses where their parties were held, and hired their regular lighting crews.Embed from Getty Images Christina Applegate, Bubba (Moses on Acid) & Neville Wells at Mr Fuji’s Tropicana, New York, 1993.
There was no air-conditioning in the warehouses they shot in, and sold-out crowds were conjured via radio annoucements of DJ appearances. The climactic scenes were shot at New York’s Webster Hall, where contemporaneous press noted the dancing extras didn’t get paid. (“On the contrary,” reported The New York Post, “The club charged their customary $15 admission fee.”). If there was any ill will directed towards the production, though, it certainly wasn’t aimed at the stars. According to Lieberstein, “While we were filming on the streets of Brooklyn, the local residents would crowd around calling’s Christina’s name, throwing flowers and sending small gifts over to her through the production assistants. No matter where we shot, it was impossible to feel threatened in the midst of so much genuine affection.”
“The difference between shooting John Wick in New York and shooting Vibrations, if you watch John Wick and you see Times Square or Chinatown, those are all our people. All our cars, all our rain. All our everything. On Vibrations, I was stealing shots.” Meaning that while they might have had a permit to grab a shot or two in, say, Times Square, Paseornek would surreptitiously sneak his actors in front of the cameras. “The reason that a real person put a dollar in James Marshall’s cup when he is sitting on the ground there is because there were real people walking through the shot, along with our people, so, they felt sorry for him. He actually made some money during the scene.” (The Vibrations press kit assures us that “proceeds went towards the purchase of sandwiches for some of the neighbourhood’s homeless”)
But the producers weren’t focused on the bottom line. In John Dunning’s memoir, You’re Not Dead Until You’re Forgotten, Paseornek recalled his perfectionist friend and mentor forcing him to re-shoot a scene. Dunning had noticed you could see under the neck of the Cyberstorm costume from one angle. “And I thought, ‘No-one but John Dunning is ever going to notice that.’ But it drove him crazy. He was ready to pay for it out of his own pocket to re-shoot something only he would see.”
Sadly, Vibrations’ box office performance didn’t reward its creators’ attention to detail. Dunning had an idea to emulate the major studios’ saturation strategy – where they book a film into thousands of movie theatres simultaneously and spend millions marketing it nationally – but instead focus on just one area of the US. “The people in that region wouldn’t know that it wasn’t a national release because we would match the majors in media exposure.”
However, Dunning would’ve had to convince US partners on the plan, and, as he later reflected, “it wasn’t my forte”. Instead, his experiment took place in one region of Canada and, unfortunately, “It didn’t work. Quebec wasn’t ready for a film about raves, so off it went to video.” Vibrations was quietly released to US video rental in late August, 1995. The sales campaign aimed at video store managers boldly asserted the film had, “trailered theatrically with The Crow, generating powerful consumer impressions.”
Vibrations was not widely reviewed (Entertainment Weekly said the film “deserves a long video life as the most unintentionally funny craze comedy since Roller Boogie“), though the dry synopsis accompanying the little press coverage it did receive goes a way to explaining its lack of impact. Under the banner of “Romance”, the Baltimore Sun’s listing was typical: “A dance-club manager befriends and then falls in love with an aspiring musician who has become an alcoholic after an attack that left him without the use of his hands.” No Utah Saints, no Vindicator suit, no programmeable hands – no suggestion at all of an irrepressible, rave-dancing cyborg DJ.
There’s a sense too, strengthened by a glance at a selection of abandoned poster concepts (see above), that they struggled figuring out how to sell the film – as a harrowing tale of amputation and alcoholism, as a Gen X drama in the mould of Reality Bites or as some kind of vague Terminator derivative? But perhaps Vibrations simply missed its moment. “Sometimes films are discovered the day they open,” offers Paseornek, “and sometimes they are discovered later.”
“I was once standing in line with Mary Harron, after we’d made American Psycho…and there were these people who had just discovered it. We were standing waiting to buy our food and this one woman says to this other woman, ‘Have you ever seen that film American Psycho? What kind of disgusting people would make that film?’ That is what you’re vulnerable to, period, in our business is, you know, not everybody is going to love everything you do. So I’m always nervous when anything comes out that I’ve been involved with.”
Vibrations had been a co-production between Paseornek’s Tanglewood Films and Dunning’s Cinépix. In the few years that followed, Paseornek established the US distribution arm of Cinépix in New York City. Then, when Lionsgate took over Cinépix/CFP in 1997, just two years after Vibrations debuted, Paseornek became president of the company’s film arm, overseeing development and production.
So after all this time, how does Paseornek feel about Vibrations? “I will say this, if I had to do it over again, at this point, I would probably have looked at the motivation more for why things happen, like why did those guys attack him. Back then, it was good enough to have bad guys just be bad guys often, you know? Today, we want to know why they are bad guys. So, I probably would put a lot more thought into that, but, again, we thought of it as a fable.”
“I think what it might have helped inform me on as a producer is not to feel limited by money and, you know, the whole idea of putting the movie together in the city with no money and just not hearing the word no.” And, of course, Vibrations’ whole budget wouldn’t cover the squib bill on any given John Wick production. “I would probably not have gone for some of the effects I went for with no money, because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, that’s the thing. And you don’t have any room for error on a low-budget film.” But, even so, Paseornek refuses to make excuses for his debut film, claiming that, even with with same budget, he’d do things differently if he made it now. Producing Vibrations helped Paseornek figure out “how to deal with everything that you deal with in a movie, without much, if any, resources. It was a great experience in that way.”
A quarter of a century later, with 86 production credits to his name, Paseornek is assured about his record. “I’ve been involved with films that have had terrible reviews and I’ve been involved with films that have had great reviews and not been that successful. Our company, we’ve had 130 Oscar nominations. I’ve seen the best of it and I’ve seen the worst of it and I’ve seen the most bizarre of it and I’m proud of everything we’ve ever done.” And so, while it’s a little scary for his film to resurface these days (“because you never know how it’s going to be received”), he’s still fond of it. “It’s a strange little movie,” says Paseornek. “I hope that people like it.”
Sean Welsh (with very special thanks to Mike Paseornek, Greg Dunning and Cinépix)
Vibrations is currently unavailable in the UK, streaming or otherwise, but you can purchase a Region 1 DVD here.
John Dunning’s memoir, You’re Not Dead Until You’re Forgotten, can be purchased directly from Cinépix here.
One more tune… (Galleries courtesy of Cinépix)